Al-Qaeda’s north African affiliate, based in the vast expanse of the Sahara, is shaking security in west Africa with attacks that are sending an unmistakable message across the region: nowhere is safe.
In the latest assault, on Sunday, gunmen claiming to be members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, killed at least 18 people, including four Europeans, at a beach resort in Ivory Coast, a country that has bounced back from civil war to achieve rapid growth and attract significant foreign investment.
The three big recent attacks in west Africa for which AQIM has claimed responsibility have all been on hotels and cafés with light or non-existent security. Both foreigners and nationals have been targeted in countries such as Burkina Faso that have large Muslim populations but little history of extremism.
“We are seeing AQIM able to carry out attacks even in countries in west Africa that have not been at the forefront of terrorist activity,” said Virginia Comolli, an expert on security issues at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “They are sending a message to the west that we are still targeting you and that you’re still our enemy.”
Sunday’s attack on two hotels in the charming town of Grand Bassam was similar to the assaults claimed by AQIM in Ivory Coast’s northern neighbours, Mali and Burkina Faso. The timing guaranteed the gunmen would find expatriates enjoying a leisurely weekend lunch, just as the assault on Burkina Faso’s capital in January occurred when dozens of foreigners and locals were dining on the open-air terrace of an Italian restaurant on a lively boulevard.
Experts see the string of attacks as signalling AQIM’s desire to prove its continued relevance despite the precipitous rise of Islamist militants Isis.
Alex Vines, head of the Africa Programme at think-tank Chatham House, said that AQIM and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the Algerian leader of an AQIM breakaway, were “trying to prove their ability to cause violence and terror” in response to the growing presence of Isis in Libya. “This has been an incentive for the north African groups to show that they have relevance and capability,” he said. “It’s not just about terror but also about maintaining smuggling and organised crime.”
Mr Belmokhtar, known widely as Mr Marlboro, made a fortune smuggling cigarettes, drugs and stolen cars, as well as kidnapping tourists for ransom. Although the US claimed to have killed the one-eyed leader in an air strike in Libya last year, experts said their working assumption was that he was still alive. “He’s one of those guys who’s been declared dead so many times,” Ms Comolli said.
The palm trees lining the beach in Grand Bassam, on the Atlantic coast, are 2,000km from where AQIM is believed to be based. The group has pushed its violent campaign ever further, despite new efforts by west African governments and their western backers — France and the US — to boost co-operation against extremism and terrorism in the region.
Experts said that Sunday’s attack was significant because terrorism had now reached the coast, meaning that other tourist destinations, including Ghana and the Gambia, last year declared an Islamic state, could also be at risk.
Normally tranquil west African capitals, including Dakar, in Senegal, have been on alert since AQIM burst back on to the global jihadi scene by attacking the Radisson Blu luxury hotel in the Malian capital of Bamako last November.
Other than that attack, the killings have taken place in countries without homegrown radical Islamist movements and with little history of religious tension. That began to change when Islamists took over a large part of northern Mali following a coup in 2012.
“It’s been three years since terrorist groups in Mali emerged,” General Pingrenoma Zagre, Burkina Faso’s army chief of staff, told the Financial Times last month. Since then, security in the Sahel and in Libya had badly deteriorated, he said, and “the menace of terrorism” in west Africa had only grown.
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